Friday, 22 June 2007

Acting Lessons

In the UK we tend to go to drama school, or to university to do a drama degree, and once we have graduated and start to get work, that is the end of our formal training. Of course, each job is unique and you learn from every experience. Occasionally a director has such a particular method of working that you develop an entirely new technique during the rehearsal process. But, on the whole, working British actors tend not to go back to school again.
In the US it is very different. Some will study drama at a college, but many will arrive in New York or LA with only the experience of High School productions, and while they are getting an agent and starting to audition, they will find a class and they will stick to it with a ferocity that an Alsatian would admire. Starring in a TV show? Just finished a sexy Independent Movie? Doesn't matter, those guys will be back in class and ready to roll as soon as they are in town.
Like many Brits, when I first arrived in California, I was sceptical about the continuing education aspect of LA actors. Hadn't we done all that stuff? And wouldn't it be, well, a little humiliating? Twiddling my thumbs between auditions, an American actor friend recommended a class he often took when he was around, to 'keep my hand in' as he tactfully put it.
The next day, with some trepidation, I drove to the very far end of town and hesitated in the doorway of a beaten-up building. Inside, a good deal of shouting was going on and a quantity of effing and, goodness, was that the c word? Convincing myself that some kind of acting must already be taking place, I gingerly slipped into a seat at the back of the tiny theatre.
The scene that unfolded over the next several hours confirmed all my worst fears and I went home convinced that I would never return. But during the week my thoughts kept returning to the class. Something exciting was happening there; not just terror and adrenaline, but enthusiasm and care for the job of being an actor for no other reason than to try and be better at it. So I went back and I loved it and I learned plenty. And sometimes, when I am standing in the wings, or behind the clapperboard, I remember the teacher's dulcet tones screaming across the stage, "Knock it out of the f****** park, you c***!” And it helps.


  1. Spencer Tracy said that acting is 'listening and reacting.' I don't know if this is true for every actor but the challenge, I suspect, is to say words that originally came from another's imagination and off the printed page which you once held in your hand and say them as though you are speaking for the very first time.
    I wouldn't want you to give away any trade secrets, Sophie :) but how large a part does listening play in your performances? What is it you listen for?
    In writing, listening is key. Some authors are visual. I am not. For me, writing is a constant adjusting of sound, in the form of words on the page. When I've gone as far as I can with a scene and am completely spent, it does sometimes feel like I've knocked the F******* thing over the wall.

  2. Ha ha! That really made me chuckle ;o) That is a genius quote! Would it be inappropriate to have that put on a t-shirt?!

  3. Ah, listening. It is something to aim for. The reason I know how important it is comes from my experience with other actors. If you are in a scene with someone and you can tell they are actually listening to you and that their response will be changed by the way in which you have said something, well that is pretty much the most exciting thing that can happen on stage, or in front of a camera.
    Your writing technique sounds very interesting and how brilliant that you get to have that feeling of knocking it out of the park. It looks like 'Little One' is getting the t-shirts.

  4. Ah, listening ... Pardon ... ?

    Someone once said (comparatively recently, in a newspaper, but I can't remember who, where or when!) that going to drama school (in Britain, at least) in preparation for a life in the modern theatre is like spending three years surviving in the rainforests of Borneo in preparation for a job in a garden centre, and that has been very much my experience - loads of physical (and vocal) development and flexibility exercising (and poverty), and then Oscar Wilde! (And comparative poverty!) Oh well, I dare say I move more easily on stage as a result, but it just seemed an awful lot of work for what there is at the end of it.

    My favourite book on acting is Michael Chekhov's, [i]To the Director[/i]. Strangely, although it's aimed primarily at the director, it has much good advice for actors and highlights the relationship and interplay between actor and director. Of course, if one direct as well (like me) it is invaluable.

    As for not going back training, I'm not sure that's entire the case for British actors. For example, a lot of them (us) return to the accredited schools on a peripatetic basis and conduct workshops (specific or general) with the current students. I find these can be just as educational as when one is a student one's self. Young students have a new angle on the world (compared with mine) and this is always useful when working out how to pitch one's own performances to a modern audience.


  5. Hello Sophie

    It’s been a long time since we spoke; if I remember correctly you were a copter kid and I was a farmers son, you Jill Peters me Bob Evans. My character description was “quick witted, quick to action” well it’s been a good few years now but I’ve never forgotten those words.

    I fondly remember that summer of 76 while we were shooting “Copter Kids”. What fun we had in that hot, dry summer, riding bikes, chasing rustlers, Chalfont St Peter if I remember correctly. It was a sad day when it was all over and we started the long haul through puberty.

    I see you are still “cracking the boards”, well good for you, I wish you all the very best.

    Robert T

  6. When an actor has stepped into an acting class or is working with an ensemble situation and everyone agrees, 'ok, we are all actors here trying to learn for the sake of it,' and never mind the sheer terror of being completely on the spot. . .What joyful surprises happen for you, Sophie, in those times when you and your fellow actors forget everything else and return to the basics?

  7. Hi Robert,
    Good to hear from you. I remember the filming well, it was so hot and such long days but a lot of fun. I like the reference to your character description. I've been putting a talk together for Screenwriters and trying to convey the importance of a little charcter sketch like that to an actor.
    Hope all is well with you these days.

  8. Jan,
    It's taken me a long time to enjoy that kind of situation and not just be thrown into an agony of self-consciousness and worry. Even though my training was mostly in improvisation, I always felt on the back foot as an adult actor when the script was taken away. And you're right, nowadays it is fun and surprising to be involved with other actors in a 'safe' environment where you explore. I think I mentioned before that Ruckley made me cry in an acting exercise we did in rehearsal and that was totally unexpected. As in everyday life, the best surprises are those moments of connection. 'Only connect' as E.M.Forster wrote.
    And for you? Do you ever get to have a frank exvhange of ideas with other writers?

  9. Joe,
    I did Wilde's 'Ideal Husband' last year and found it very demanding.

  10. Sophie,
    It does take a long time to be able to willingly enter into a situation with only yourself and openly say, 'I don't know' and then work from there.
    It is a bit like standing at the edge of a swimming pool and staring into the cold water.
    It happens a lot with writing. Other writers do help when the plot sags or characterization is weak, but the magical moments for me come when the characters take off on their own. They develop in some unexpected or completely unique way. And they can be quite stubborn about it, too. When I try to remind them, 'But I created you.' I am often met with a resounding, 'Out!'
    I have been shown the door on more than one occasion. When this happens, then I know, as you must in rehearsal or workshop or a stellar night's performance, that the jump into the cold water was worth it.


  11. Hmmm.. I've been thinking about Joe's comments about drama schools. I can understand that it must seem like a lot of work to acquire skills that may be used rarely in the 'real' theatrical world but I think his analogy may be over simplifying things a little. When you look at theatre today, it seems that actors need more than ever to have many different skills to enable them to (potentially) work with different director's methods. Katie Mitchell's approach to working on a text is described as phorensic and if some actors have a backgound in Stanislavski based training then they may find it easier. The work you do at drama school on voice and breathing will help undoubtedly with Shakespeare. The work done on movement and flexibility will also help if you had to work with companies like Shared Experience. These are just a couple of quick examples.

    I agree with Sophie that I think that Wilde's plays can be more demanding than people think. To say that you go through all of that training to go on to do Oscar Wilde (of all things!)makes it sound as if it is some sort of anti-climax and that your skills are wasted on such plays. I know that probably isn't what you are saying but that's what it comes across like and I think it can be misleading. I worked on a production of one of Wilde's plays this year and one of the guys was just out of drama school and he found it really difficult.

  12. Dear Sophie,
    I can't help but think of you as I watch the news reports of the horrific flooding. I'm hoping you are well and safe and all those you care for are safe as well. Here's sending you a very dry day from (I am ashamed to say it!) California. . .
    Warmest regards,

  13. Ah, missing California right now. Our house here is on a hill so no flooding, but no running water either. Thank you for your good wishes and I pass them on to all who need them in these soggy valleys.

  14. I hope the water is up and running very soon for you and all who live in the 'shire.